Northern Ireland’s outlawed Ulster Defense Association says it has fully disarmed

By Shawn Pogatchnik, AP
Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Outlawed NIreland association says it has disarmed

DUBLIN — The major British Protestant paramilitary group in Northern Ireland, the Ulster Defense Association, announced Wednesday it has fully disarmed — finally meeting the key requirement of the province’s 1998 peace accord.

The international official overseeing Northern Ireland disarmament, retired Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain, said his officials recently “conducted a major act of decommissioning in which arms, ammunition, explosives and explosive devices belonging to the UDA have been destroyed.”

In a statement, de Chastelain said Ulster Defense Association leaders had assured him “that these armaments constitute the totality of those under their control.”

A UDA representative, Frankie Gallagher, told a Belfast press conference that the outlawed group regretted having killed more than 400 people, mostly Catholic civilians, from the 1970s to 1990s.

“But we are determined and are willing to play our full part in ensuring that tragedy of the last 40 years will never happen again,” he said.

The governments of Britain and Ireland — which have spent more than a decade pressing all of Northern Ireland’s underground armies to disarm — welcomed the move as a final piece of the peacemaking jigsaw.

Irish President Mary McAleese called the disarmament “a very positive milestone on the journey of peace.”

McAleese, a Belfast-born Catholic, said the latest disarmament shows that Northern Ireland’s militant traditions are “being replaced by a culture of consensus, democracy and good neighborliness.”

Britain’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Shaun Woodward, said the UDA move was spurred by his threat to withdraw the amnesty period for handing over weapons. After Feb. 9, anyone who fails to surrender illegally held weapons will face potential imprisonment.

Woodward said the belated disarmament demonstrated “that firmness of government policy, with a clear deadline, have produced a startlingly strong outcome, removing some of the most dangerous weapons from the streets.”

Two community witnesses, retired Protestant Archbishop Robin Eames and former Ulster Bank chairman George Quigley, confirmed that they observed the surrender and destruction of UDA weapons.

They, like the UDA and the Canadian general, offered no details on the locations or manner of the weapons handover.

The Ulster Defense Association has broadly observed a 1994 cease-fire, but previously refused to surrender its arms — chiefly guns and grenades — citing the continuing threat from Irish Republican Army dissidents based in Catholic areas.

De Chastelain has been seeking the disarmament of Northern Ireland’s panoply of illegal groups since 1997. The Good Friday peace pact of 1998 called for all truce-observing groups to disarm by mid-2000, but none of the three major groups met that deadline.

The Provisional IRA, the best-armed group, surrendered its largely Libyan-supplied weapons stockpile gradually from 2001 to 2005. The other major British Protestant gang, the Ulster Volunteer Force, completed its disarmament last year.

The Ulster Defense Association has an estimated 2,000 members, making it by far the largest illegal group in Northern Ireland. It also is the most ill-disciplined, with rival “brigadiers” leading murderous internal feuds as part of power struggles over criminal rackets, including the sale of counterfeit goods and smuggled cigarettes.

The IRA and its dissident offshoots spent decades trying to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom, but the IRA’s Sinn Fein party today takes part in a power-sharing government alongside the Protestant majority. The Good Friday accord reaffirmed that Northern Ireland would remain in the U.K. as long as a majority of its citizens desire this.

The Ulster Defense Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force sought to terrorize the IRA’s Catholic support base. Both typically targeted lone Catholics who lived or worked in predominantly Protestant areas and mounted gun-and-grenade attacks on social venues in Catholic districts, such as pubs and gambling shops.

The UDA was created in 1971 as an umbrella group for Protestant vigilante groups, and used a cover name — the “Ulster Freedom Fighters” — when claiming responsibility for violence.

The UDA often lashed out at Catholics following IRA attacks. In 1993, after the IRA killed nine Protestant civilians in a botched attempt to bomb a Belfast meeting of UDA commanders, the Ulster Defense Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force responded by killing 13 civilians. In the worst attack, a masked gunman shouted “Trick or treat!” before raking a pub filled with Halloween revelers.

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